March 24, 2013

Biography explores Jane Austen’s life from a fresh perspective

“The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things” by Paula Byrne (Harper, 329 pages, $29.99)

“The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things” by Paula Byrne (Harper, 329 pages, $29.99)

A good biography informs readers not only about the life of the subject, but about the history of the time — the context of the person’s life. A great biography leaves readers knowing the subject so personally that it feels as if they’ve actually spent time together. Paula Byrne’s new biography of Jane Austen falls into the latter category: after reading it, we feel that we’re practically friends with Jane, having such an intimate understanding of her life and times.

“The Real Jane Austen” takes a different tack from many biographies, including previous Austen biographies. Instead of proceeding chronologically, the author has selected 18 objects — from the commonplace to the exotic — and uses them to tell the story of Austen’s life, her family history, the places that influenced and informed her writing, and the larger context of Regency-era England. As Byrne puts it near the beginning, “the intense emotions associated with love and death are often refracted through objects.”

For example, an East Indian shawl opens the door to both British colonialism and the French Revolution. Through events that happened to Austen’s relatives, we see how Austen the author — whose life and work were often regarded as provincial and domestic — was both aware of the larger world and engaged with it. An aunt who traveled to India on the “fishing fleet” for the purpose of finding a husband may have inspired a character in an early Austen novella, and references to items brought back from India, such as a shawl, pop up in later works. And family members who witnessed the violence of the French Revolution ensured that the Austen family was aware of the events in France and their potential influence on Britain; oblique references to the threat of riots arise in “Northanger Abbey.”

Byrne takes a simple card of lace and uses it as the starting point to delve into the social world of Bath. Austen drew upon her own firsthand knowledge of the city and its vibrant social season to create such realistic scenes — of both the city’s geography and its social affairs — in “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion.”

And a painting of the daughters of Lord Mansfield — a leading abolitionist who adopted two girls, one his white niece and one the illegitimate daughter of his nephew and a black slave — opens the door to the Austen family’s opinions on slavery (opposed, in spite of the fact that the family had some connections to colonial plantations) as well as the link between the name of Lord Mansfield and Austen’s novel “Mansfield Park.” That novel has as the seeds of its plot the trouble that Sir Thomas — Fanny Price’s uncle — is having with his Antigua estates, and its villains, Mr. and Mrs. Norris, share their surname with an infamous British slave trader.

Byrne draws largely on family correspondence for details (unfortunately, Austen’s sister, Cassandra, burned a significant portion Jane’s letters), but also literary works and documents of the time, later family accounts and, of course, Austen’s own novels. This means, though, that occasionally Byrne goes a bit overboard with family connections and distant relatives. Some passages read like the “begat” parts of the Bible, and in one particularly knotty description of who’s related to whom that attempts to connect Jane Austen and Lord Byron, even Byrne has to admit, “now it gets complicated.”

That aside, the sources for “The Real Jane Austen” provide a great deal of information and historical context. By choosing the topic-based approach, Byrne has pulled them all together to create a detailed, nuanced portrait of the life and times of one of the world’s most beloved authors.

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